Where is your head?

If you’ve read any self-help literature or any popular positive pscyhology publications, the following kinds of belief and associated advice will be familiar to you:

  • Find your true self
  • Live authentically: be true to your true self
  • Express your true self
  • Self-actualize: fulfil your potential (or even your “destiny”)
  • Be self-determined rather than doing stuff to please other people.
  • Find meaning in life

I want you to consider two possible problems with these nostrums:

First, they may be unviable fantasies: do you have any good reason to believe that you have a ‘true self’, or that life has ‘meaning’? Do individuals really always know what’s better for them than other people do? Is there a rational way of selecting which of your ‘potentials’ to fulfil?

Second, you and other people could be harmed by the sanctimonious moralizing and life advice that are licenced by this concept. It may in many ways be thoroughly bad for you and for other people if you try to be authentic, to find meaning in life, or to fulfil your destiny. Conversely, there may be many instances in which it’s good to play roles which contradict your sense of ‘true self’.

The Polonius problem: why are people so attracted to “true self” beliefs?

If you know your Shakespeare, you’ll remember that Hamlet’s eventual killer Laertes was given the world’s most famous authenticity advice by his Dad Polonius, a rather boring old guy who was himself about to be murdered by Hamlet. “This above all else, to thine own self be true”, he said. There are millions of people alive today who seem to labour under the misapprehension that Polonius was a great sage worth quoting in a serious tone. But did you know what else he said and did? As if his apparently belief in a “true self” weren’t absurd enough, he added: “Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

Oh really? Both of these statements, delivered in a litany of largely bland but occasionally preposterous guidance on good behaviour, were surely meant to be taken with at least a pinch of salt, if not laughed out of court. Obviously, whatever ‘the self’ might be, there can never be a ‘true’ version that trumps all other possible selves. And even if there were a single true self that you could somehow discover through deliberate cultivation of self-awareness, how on earth could you be expected to get through a normal human life without deceiving anyone? Of course we must all use deceit in our everyday lives. If we didn’t, we’d soon be in all kinds of trouble.

If Shakespeare had given these wise-cracks to a more complex and interesting character, it might have been plausible to argue that behind this façade of extreme naiveté there were some clever wisdom hiding. We might have dug a bit deeper to find some important meaning behind what is self-evidently twaddle. But no, it was Polonius who said them, and we have no reason not to interpret them as bland or ambiguous if not downright absurd. Laertes was given this life advice when he was setting off on a journey. Literally a journey, that is, not a “journey” although perhaps his trip was one of the more influential sources of our contemporary metaphor.

Polonius was worried about his son’s journey. And he was such a trusting father that he sent spies to track Laertes all around France in case he misbehaved. Polonius doesn’t sound like a fan of self-determination theory. He sounds like the kind of Dad who would have had some pretty strong views on the kind of “true self” he wanted his son to be. And do you know what his very last bit of advice was for his son? “Your servants are waiting”. If Laertes’s servants heard the “true self” advice, I imagine they could have worked out that it wasn’t really meant for them. If this was some kind of cultural tipping point, beyond which it would become possible to take “true self” individualistic discourse seriously, it was at first understood as advice that young male aristocrats might entertain. It would be hundreds of years before we got to the thoroughly modern idea that everyone ought to work out their own individual destiny and fulfil their potential.

Nowadays, several people each year write new books structured entirely on the wisdom of Polonius. Each year millions of people buy books whose core message is that personal authenticity is possible. They have titles like: ‘Finding the Real You’; ‘Being the Real Me’; ‘The Authentic Self’; ‘True Happiness’; ‘Authentic Happiness’; and ‘Journey to Self-Realization”. And their covers have pictures of tragic lost souls staring out balefully from rocky outcrops, or posing on beaches looking to the waves and the sunsets for inspiration. They argue that the steadfast pursuit of personal authenticity should be based on developing an unshakeable belief that there is one true, sincere, inner self that is destined one day to flourish and to express itself, in the process shaking off those festering fake selves that we all present to other people and even to ourselves from time to time.

Positive psychologists, life coaches, and self-help gurus aren’t always rampant individualists and they commonly complain that they are misjudged in this regard. But it is hard to imagine stronger evidence of unrealistically individualistic beliefs and morally questionable anti-social values than ‘true self’ discourse and ‘self-determination’ theory. We are a social species, and the many selves that we may choose to become are largely not to be magically sourced from ‘within ourselves’, but rather from other people – from our family, friends, and networks, and from our cultural traditions and shared repertoires. Both “true self” and “self-determination theory” sound like dangerously narcissistic myths, although interestingly several psychologists have argued that ‘narcissism’ is a sign of failure to develop self-awareness.

Spiritual journeys, gut feelings, and headless chickens

Is true self dogma a religious response to existential doubt? Why do so many people seem attracted to this nonsense? Probably we must assume that as with religious beliefs in gods and spirits and heavenly afterworlds, people hold to such beliefs because they find them helpful. And they probably find them helpful because if you can fool yourself into believing that you have a true, unique self out there waiting to be discovered, this may give you the confidence to be assertively dismissive with versions of yourself that you no longer like.

In psychological terms, true self beliefs could be seen as “approach goals” which provide positive motivation. No doubt they often do function in this way, with good results for wellbeing. But to fully understand their appeal I think we must also recognize their ambiguity. Perhaps they are more realistically understood as “avoidance goals”. Just as belief in heaven indicates fear of death, maybe “true self” beliefs indicate a deep-seated fear of existential alienation. Instead of being a sign of psychological maturity, it might be better to understand the true-selfer as someone who has failed to come to terms with the endlessly malleable and provisional nature of the self. And although ‘self-determination’ sounds positive, it can just as well be understood as indicative of a dangerously narcissistic fear of letting other people get under your skin.

There’s a clue about the pervasive religiosity of ‘true self’ dogma in the fact that most texts on the subject quickly resort to the claim that the ‘path’ or ‘journey’ to the ‘deep’ location of this self-thing is a ‘spiritual’ route. Rather than, say, a practical one. In other words, apart from teasing you with these path/journey metaphors which are supposed to inspire you to go exploring, people haven’t actually got much of a clue how you will find yourself. ‘Spirit’ is nearly always an implicit admission of cluelessness – as in the asinine concept of ‘spiritual wellbeing,’ a term which simply tells us that some aspects of our wellbeing are quite uncertain and elusive.

Oddly, however, the other most common metaphor for the location of your self-thing is a thoroughly bodily one: you should go with what your ‘heart’ tells you, or follow your ‘gut feelings’ – rather than using your ‘head’. Although the spirit and gut metaphors sound contrastive, they actually tend to mean much the same thing. To find yourself, you’re supposed to run around like a headless chicken flapping your wings until you reach enlightenment. If you think this kind of religious mumbo-jumbo is only to be found in Hay House new-age self-help books, think again. Some day, someone will do a robust linguistic analysis of texts on the authentic self written by professional positive psychologists, and I’m sure they will confirm the all-pervasiveness of both spirit-speak and gut-speak, along with liberal sprinklings of holy grail and journey metaphors. The headless chickens will run and run.

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